Thursday, March 27, 2008

With strings attached

I've been ignoring the Handel and Haydn Society lately, despite the fact that their spring concerts have been providing reliable pleasure, and sometimes much more - Philip Pickett's conducting of "Baroque Jewels" (combined with Nicholas Martin's light-hearted direction of several dramatic scenes) was a particular delight. But I promise all that is going to change, and what better place to start than last week's "Italian Virtuosi" concert, led by H&H concertmaster Daniel Stepner (at left), and featuring the luminous vocalist Dominique Labelle.

The program opened with concerti grossi by Corelli, Vivaldi, and Locatelli, before shifting into a slightly different mode with Handel's Il Delirio amoroso featuring Labelle. A purist might argue the evening was therefore neither entirely fish nor fowl, but I think only a specialist wouldn't have wanted a break after three (admittedly lovely) concerti grossi in a row. And to tell the truth, I wasn't entirely sold on the Corelli, which felt slightly tentative in its pacing and attack. The Vivaldi, by way of contrast, was lively and often captivating, driven as it was by an unlikely, yet lyrically bickering, dialogue between oboe (Stephen Hammer) and bassoon (Andrew Schwartz). The Locatelli was most surprising of all in its energy and depth of feeling - largely due to Stepner's own virtuosic turn as lead violin, and the obvious rapport he had with the other players (the collegiality at H&H remains one of its central strengths).

Then came Handel's Delirio, which is a kind of one-act-opera-for-one, in which the soprano provides her own scenic description, narrative, recitative, and aria. The text is a variant of the Orpheus myth, although this time it's the nymph Chloris who laments the death of her beloved Thyrsis and descends to the underworld to seek him. Once discovered, Thyrsis turns out to be something of a clod, but that doesn't deter the clever Chloris, who recommends a dip in the river Lethe to wash away any bad feelings - indeed, to wash away memory itself. The piece concludes with a poignant evocation of love after death in Elysium, with the strangely equivocal words, "If an eclipsed sun's bright light was no longer seen, at least it was seen in the imagination."

Okay, whatever works, Chloris. The sun hardly seemed in eclipse, however, when essayed by the radiant voice of Dominique Labelle (at right). Utterly secure in pitch, yet astonishingly fluid in her technique, and with a golden tone that bordered on the opulent, Labelle delivered one of the most memorable vocal performances in recent Boston history. She projects a solid, intelligent presence that perhaps wasn't ideal for the role, but her instrument - and its gorgeously warm classical balance - basically made any dramatic quibbles moot. When it comes to Handel, I'd say she has few peers - and while I don't see her listed in next year's H&H season, I'm hoping we'll be seeing her very soon after that.

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